Tears of amazement ran down my cheeks the first time I heard Steven Bernstein's "Diaspora Soul." The tunes are traditional liturgical songs you might hear at any Jewish wedding, but they are executed with Cuban instrumentation-stripped-down piano and bongos--and Cuban flair. Bernstein's theory is that the two traditions share a common bass pattern--that frenetic, swirling line that grounds the hora.
Although it was a moody, rainy Saturday afternoon, I was also smiling, thinking of happy, retired Jewish grandparents doing the cha-cha in Miami, blissfully unaware of their ties to the Afro-Cuban soul. Bernstein's Gulf Coast Theory, as he calls the connections he makes, is fully supported by "Diaspora Soul," a gorgeous, sexy, and completely spiritual CD crafted by special request for John Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture series, on Zorn's brave, jazz-plus label, Tzadik.
Bernstein is a slide trumpeter, an ex-Lounge Lizard, collector of cantorial recordings from the '20s, and master of Sex Mob, a jazz group that regularly plays to frenzied crowds at the New York club Tonic, and has given us Solid Sender and Din of Inequity. When we spoke on the phone recently, Bernstein got out his horn and blew a slow, groovy "Chosen-Kalle Masel Tov" for me, demonstrating exactly how Louis Armstrong belongs to the Jewish wedding band and bar mitzvah tradition, just as much as my uncle Buddy or your Aunt Sarah.
Growing up in Berkeley in the '60s, Bernstein recalls, "there weren't many Jews around, so building a Jewish identity wasn't easy." Luckily, his family attended a fairly hip, progressive temple, observing Shabbat semi-regularly. He speaks warmly of the congregation's spirituality, in contrast with what he perceives as a much colder, East Coast vibe that continues to be a turn-off for him. In sixth grade, Bernstein went to school sporting a huge, golden Star of David--the kind of over-the-top rope chain worn by old-school rappers--in solidarity with Jews who were being denied passage from the now-former Soviet Union.
"Lying is not Jewish," Bernstein explains. "He [Giuliani] is the exact opposite of what Judaism is about: righteousness, fairness, humor, compassion...an extreme love-orientation." The mayor will not be remembered for his love-orientation.
Judaism is love-oriented and sexy, which is what's so enticing about Bernstein's music. It's sensual, like the aspects of Judaism that are dearest to him, the parts that are "all about eating dinner, having sex, and laughing." Hearing this raw sound summons a dark, smoky room with Cuban gents drawing on robust Cohibas, pounding on piano keys with eyes closed, slapping bongos and other handheld percussion; yet just as potent is the presence of our Ashkenazic elders, in their black coattails and tsitsit.
It's a dream come true, this union of musical souls, and Bernstein expresses the desire to give something to those religious Jews who might not have the inclination, or the opportunity, to wander from familiar, straight-up takes on these liturgical standards.
Judaism's sensuality is the driving force behind Bernstein's Sex Mob, whose album "Solid Sender"--Jewish only in as much as Bernstein is a Jew making music --brings full-body excitement back to jazz, where it used to be when jazz was a popular music. "People would go out to clubs, listen to the music, dance, drink, have a hell of a lot of fun, and then go home and get laid. Simple as that." And although Bernstein adores Woody Allen--the man as well as his films--he objects to the stereotypical, neurotic, Allen-esque New York Jew.
Bernstein notes, however, that Allen's films are getting darker and edgier, a mood he identifies with and appreciates, since, he says, there is great power in darkness; so much music there. Bernstein's concept, executed in his more consciously Jewish works as well as the not-so-Jewish, is to put sex and laughter back into jazz, darkness and sweat included.
Those moments are vivid in "Manishtana," a Passover song, slowed down and opened up for exploration. Remember, this is the music of bondage and freedom, compelled by Pharaoh's tireless refusal to let my people go. "Manishtana" is the refrain sung at the seder, usually by the youngest (male) at the table. This version, however, luxuriates in itself and shows Pharaoh that every step of the journey--from oppression into radical freedom--is delicious and ought not be rushed. "Diaspora Soul" should be taken in thusly.
Any rendition of "Shalom Bimromav," a Jewish standard, is inherently stirring, but steam leaks from Bernstein's version on "Diaspora." He's played it at a zillion catering halls, but this is the X-rated take. E.J. Rodgriguez solos on bongo throughout, alongside sax and trumpet intoning the familiar melody. If Bernstein's trumpet solos could be translated into words, what would they say? Like niggunim--Hasidic songs without lyrics that are chanted in order to connect with God--Bernstein's trumpet sounds carry pure, evocative joy, revelry and devotion. Except here, the dirty, back-of-the-throat rasp of Satchmo adds an extra, spicy ingredient.